PArshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

Parshat Achrei Mot describes the order of service on Yom Kippur which includes the drawing of lots between two goats, one marked for Hashem to be sacrificed as a sin offering and the other marked for Azazel that was to be pushed over a precipice. This symbol of uncertainty is taken up by R Shimshon Refael Hirsch in the context of the difference between animals whose choices were randomly decided for them, and the human situation where we have freedom of choice. R Hirsch explains that these two goats are presented as similar and stood equal as we are told “and he shall take two he goats and stand them before Hashem at the entrance of the sanctuary.” Two with equal opportunity but from this point on their destiny divides. One is sacrificed reaching the pinnacle of holiness within the holy of holies, and the other does not come anywhere near to holiness but is taken as is to a desolate place in the wilderness.

Hirsch continues, that within each of us there is the power of decision. Hashem has given us the power of choice to resist temptations and stay within the ways of the Torah or to choose from the freedoms of the world around us. We are all equal and the choices are not controlled by our wealth or status in society. This is free will, we are not as R Hirsch notes “sent” anywhere.

Hirsch notes based on the Talmud the symbolic rather than mechanical effect of the goat sent to Azazel. The Talmud states that the actual sending away of the goat is not indispensable for achieving atonement. Though the Torah clearly orders the performance of this ritual, if, for whatever reason, it was neglected, the nation can nevertheless achieve atonement, so long as the high priest conducts the verbal confession. Hirsch views this ritual as instructive, rather than mechanical, justifying the availability of atonement even in its absence.

Don Isaac Abarbanel connects the two equal goats to the battle between Esau and Jacob, two boys brought up equally, emerging with completely different personalities. Both brothers fathered a nation, but Hashem only took Israel as his chosen nation. He explains that even though we realize that many things in life are a matter of chance, as is the choice of the scapegoat, it is our plea to Hashem on Yom Kippur that he should continue to choose us.

Interestingly, in the story of Jacob and Esau, Isaac asks Esau to bring him savoury food, Rebecca overhears and sends Jacob to bring two kid goats. Rashi asks why two goats and explains it was Pesach – one goat for an offering and one for the meal. The Midrash adds that Rebecca was saying “two kids is a good idea, good for you as you will get the blessing, and good for your descendants who will be pardoned through them on Yom Kippur.

Abarbanel inherited great wealth living in Portugal at the times of the Spanish Inquisition, and he even tried to bribe the Spanish not to expel the Jews. He witnessed the terrible suffering and here in his commentary on verse 10 “but the goat whose lot fell for Azazel shall be sent alive before Hashem” he sees a promise of salvation, indicating that Jews will survive.

This week, we had a couple of days break in Tiberias and we came across the amazing story of Dona Gracia Mendes-Nasi. Briefly, Dona Gracia was born in Portugal to a family that had fled Spain after the Inquisition. From a rich home, she married even richer but was soon widowed, she left Portugal with her only child, Reyna, as Portugal was also under the influence of the Inquisition, making life unbearable for the marranos, like Dona Gracia, living secretly as Jews. She fled to Antwerp, Venice and eventually to Constantinople, there able to openly practice Judaism. She became the center of worldwide help to marranos and Jews in suffering. She used her wealth to open doors to the persecuted and even established a strong Jewish presence in Tiberias. She built synagogues, yeshivot and help resettle many marranos. There is a beautiful hotel and museum in Tiberias, that has helped revive this almost forgotten story.

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